Editor’s note: “Murmurations” is an original short story written for BirdWire by Christine Goff, author of the Birdwatcher Mystery series. Find these books online and in bookstores nationwide, and visit christinegoff.com.
Synopsis: The Troutdale Town Council tables a proposal to ban the feeding of wild animals—including birds—much to the frustration of Councilman Todd Harvey. Newspaper reporter Neveah Porter suspects there is more to the story, given the lack of public notice or input on the proposed ban, and the councilman’s determination to get it passed quickly. As she digs into the proposed ordinance, she finds that “overfeeding” birds can result in a fine of up to $2,650 per day! Clearly, something is wrong with this picture, so she intends to investigate.
The Dipper wild bird store occupied a one-story, ranch-style house on the south end of town. Nestled between the T-Bar-S bar and restaurant and the Troutdale Dam Park, it had its own bird feeding garden with paths that intersected with trails running along the banks of the creek in both directions.
When Neveah pushed through the door, a door chime in the guise of an outbreak of bird calls signaled her arrival, and she heard Bo Bogan call out from the back.
“Be out in a minute.”
“Take your time, Bo.”
Neveah always enjoyed browsing the store. To the left of the entrance hung the birdfeeders, displayed above neatly stacked piles of bags of birdseed, and a variety of birdhouses of varying dimensions and designs. The feeders included tube feeders, platform feeders, squirrel-proof feeders, window feeders, hummingbird feeders, suet and block feeders—you name it, if it was a bird feeder, it was there.
To the right was a variety of bird-watching paraphernalia and gifts, everything from high-end binoculars and spotting scopes to garden decor. Neveah randomly browsed through the books.
“What can I do for you?”
Turning to find Bo walking out of the back room pushing a cart heavy with black-oil sunflower seeds, she followed him to the growing stack. “I’m doing an article for the paper on the proposed ordinance banning the feeding of wild animals. I wanted to get your perspective.”
Bo grunted under the weight of the seed bags, hefting them onto the stack nearest the bulk seed bins. “Tootie and Sybil were in here this morning, yakking about the town council meeting. First I heard about any ordinance. If it passes, it will put us right out of business.”
“Mind answering a few questions for me?” Neveah pulled out her notebook and pencil.
“Shoot. But you’ll have to stick with me.” Bo turned and headed back toward the storeroom. She stayed on his heels.
“One of the allegations had to do with attracting hordes of magpies and crows on the south end of town. That’s where your store is located. Do you know anything about that?”
Bo stopped suddenly, and she nearly ran into him.
“That’s being done intentionally,” Bo said, whirling around, his hands on his hips, annoyed. “Every so often somebody cuts open a bag of seed and scatters it along the paths and in the T-Bar-S parking lot. We’ve tried putting up cameras, but we can’t seem to catch the guy. Let’s just say he’s smarter than us.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
Bo shrugged, turned, and started walking again. “Maybe somebody wants to put us out of business. Try asking Todd Harvey.”
“The president of the town council?” Neveah wondered if their dispute might be personal. “Why would he want to shut down The Dipper?”
“It’s no secret that the council wants to see this location used for the new Chamber of Commerce building being proposed. My business is the first one you see when you enter town, and the perfect location for a Visitor Center. The Chamber’s made me a few offers, and Harvey talked to me, but I have no desire to sell. It’s also the perfect place for a wild bird store.”
“Do you still have the security tapes?” Neveah figured it was worth taking a look for herself. Maybe she would see something Bo missed.
“Sure, but I’m telling you, there’s nothing on them. I’ll get ’em for you before you leave.” He hefted a bag of seed onto each shoulder, and she picked up a bag and followed him back into the front of the store.
“The other allegation made in the ordinance is that it’s bad for the birds to feed them year-round,” she said.
Bo snorted. “That debate has been going on for years. It’s perfectly safe. Some folks prefer not to feed birds in the summer when there’s lots of food, but it’s personal choice. Some experts’ll even tell you it helps the birds to provide them with a ready food source during migration and when they’re nesting. They’re using lots of energy then, and it provides food for the young—especially goldfinches.”
“But doesn’t it encourage the birds to stay around longer, delaying their migration?”
“Another myth. The food supply has nothing to do with it. A number of things trigger migration, the most significant being the length of the days. The days get shorter the birds get scarcer.” He took the bag from her and set it down on the pile. “Speaking of feeders, it’s time to fill the ones out back. Care to walk with me?”
“Sure.” Neveah never turned down a chance to go on a bird walk, and Bo was one of the best leaders in town.
“Elisa,” Bo called out to a young girl coming through the side door as they headed toward the back. “Mrs. Porter and I are going to feed the birds. Keep an eye on things? We’ll be back in twenty.”
The backyard of The Dipper was awash with color. The aspens grew in clumps among the pines and flourished in the sun near the banks of the river. Their quaking leaves had started to turn golden yellow and rustled softly in the breeze, while the rush of the water over the dam worked to drown out the gurgle of the creek.
Bo and Neveah both carried buckets of seed, and as they approached the first feeder small flocks of mountain and black-capped chickadees dispersed into the surrounding trees.
“You keep the list, Ms. Reporter,” Bo said.
Neveah flipped a page in her notebook. At the top of the page she noted the date, time and weather conditions—mid-60s and sunny—then she started listing the birds:
Mountain Chickadees 3 7
Black-capped Chickadees 4
Northern Flicker 2
Downy Woodpecker 1
Stellar’s Jay 4 5
Western Wood-Pewees 2 3 6
Chipping Sparrow 1 2 4 5
Western Tanager 1
White-breasted Nuthatch 2
Pygmy Nuthatch 2 3 4 6 7
House Wren 2 4 5 6 8
Yellow-rumped Warbler 1 2
Evening Grosbeak 6 9 12
“Not bad for a short afternoon stroll,” Bo said as they headed back toward The Dipper.
Neveah agreed. “This is a lovely garden.”
“It would be a shame if the council succeeds in shutting us down.” Bo walked back to his office and came back with two VHS tapes and a list of the coming month’s events. “Here are the tapes you wanted, and this may be the last of the school fieldtrips and community programs. Don’t be a stranger.”
Neveah thanked him and promised to let him know if she learned anymore.
Walking back toward her car, she spotted Todd Harvey making his way up the sidewalk to the T-Bar-S. It was a popular place to get burgers and sandwiches, and she would have thought nothing of it if he hadn’t suddenly turned and hurried to get out of sight.
What in the world was Harvey up to?